Friday, May 27, 2016

The Unusual World Sound of Moken Nunga on Chapters of My Life

Moken: Chapters of My Life  Bantu Records
What a strange and, in musical terms, a somewhat beautiful journey the Cameroonian Moken Nunga has made. From his coastal hometown Victoria, now called Limbe, in Africa’s Cameroon to Detroit, Michigan and now onto his first musical offering. In Detroit, with the help of his American father, the young man attended design college at the College of Creative Studies and after his share of hardships he ultimately prevailed and graduated, a lifelong ambition. Along the way the talented storyteller was able assimilate some life experiences that, while at times challenging, never dampened his generally upbeat spirit. The result is a wonderfully vivid musical accounting Chapters of My Life his debut cd on Atlanta’s Bantu records.

This slender almost spindly man has a captivating voice that ranges from bellowing baritone to piercing falsetto. His modulating delivery is somewhat reminiscent of the Avant- garde sound of jazz singer Leon Thomas, although it is more warbling than Thomas’s yodel style. He speaks of being influenced by Van Morrison and Nina Simone, and attributes some influence to the jazz funk, Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, famous for his hit song “Soul Makoosa.” I can hear some Bob Marley in him also. Simply put Moken possesses a very real World sound, a fiercely original sound that has an almost universal appeal made particularly compelling by the man’s unforgettable voice.

From the opening bars of his “Wild Wild Ways” you are swept up in Moken’s musical personae. He has an easy lilting manner in his delivery, with infectious beats and soothing rhythms that simply draw you in. His vocals are mesmerizing and the music is hypnotic with guitar work by Pascal Danae and fellow Cameroonian Blick Bassy. The rhythm section is made up of Jean Lamoot on bass and Baptiste Brondy on drums, with overdubbed background vocals by Moken himself, Bassy and Roselyne Belinga. Together the album is non stop groove.

“Malinga” is a compelling repeated vamp over a rolling rhythmic groove. Moken’s warbling voice is joyful celebration of song and the background vocals just add to the chant-like call.

Moken certainly demonstrates his sense of humor with his playful lyrics on “A Bone to Grind with Einstein” where he humorously suggests that the famous mathematician stole his look, his hair and his mustache.

The infectious rhythm of “A Bato Bam” proclaims “we are all travelers in this world,” sung as a vocal background chant as Moken musically speaks about the struggles of human existence and how we all must travel through our lives with courage.

In a proclamation of his own struggle to achieve, Moken offers the haunting “The Man Who Never Gives Up.” The depth of his melodious baritone is featured on the Sengalese sourced mbalax-inspired “Ma Masse.” With his quirky vocals modulating between the deep timbre of his speaking voice and a falsetto cry he employs, we are introduced into the mechanistically driven “Machine Man” the most futuristic of his offerings. Starting with a simple finger picked guitar and splashing cymbals Moken’s quivering voice exclaims how easy it was for him to have become a machine in his actions despite having the heart of a human being. Brondy’s syncopated beat is introduced, creating an automated feel as an electric guitar screeches in distorted defiance.

One of the most memorable melodies that Moken creates on this album is surely his musical “Walking Man” an autobiographical reference to his own travails, where he found himself car-less, walking everywhere, at times to near exhaustion. With the catchy repeated refrain “Homeless, food-less, shoe-less, sleepless, careless,” he commands his more fortunate brethren to never look down on the walking man, for as Moken discovered himself, the walking man might well one day be you. At his best Moken is a melodic troubadour who tells his compelling story with a rhythmic vamp and a most unusual voice.

“Jerusalem” opens with a gentle acoustic guitar refrain before going into a classic African inspired rhythmic vamp with its finger picked guitar lines that remind me of some of Lionel Loueke’s work. Some inspired vocal choral work singing the title “Jerusalem” frames Moken’s own exploratory vocals. The words are not always easy to distinguish for me, but the voice is so compelling and the rhythms so moving that you don’t really need to know what he is saying to enjoy the music.

The finale is “Waiting for the Day” a cheerful romp that declares everyone will have their day and that it is worth waiting for.  There is a sixties rock sensibility to this one, sounding vaguely like Traffic’s “Light Up and Leave Me Alone,” but no one would confuse Moken’s strange falsetto with Jim Capaldi’s rasp.

Moken Nunga has reportedly moved to Atlanta where he hopes to pursue his predilection to creative design. He hopes to employ his skills with leather and cloth and open a shoe atelier. With such a promising debut album we can only hope that this artist has more chapters of his life to share.

You can sample this album by clicking  here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt's # Jive Culture: Hipness meets Maturity

Jeremy Pelt photo by Sally Pritchard
When a new album comes out from an artist that you have listened to and appreciated, it is always a moment of anticipation when you play the first cut and see if it holds up to your expectations. I have been a fan of Jeremy Pelt’s playing for quite some time and when the opening notes of the lead off song “Baswald’s Place,” from Pelt's latest # Jive Cuture, hit my ears I knew I was in for a treat.  Pelt has a beautiful tone and his attack is precise and piquant. The interplay with the superbly swinging Billy Drummond on drums is a lesson in synchronous dynamism and of course the ever present foundation of the swing is laid down to perfection by the inimitable Ron Carter on bass.

Jeremy Pelt's #Jive Culture High Note # HCD7285
It is the opportunity to play with the great bassist Carter that made this date all the more special for Pelt. The mutual respect these two have is on brilliant display on Carter’s “Einbahnstrasse” a down home blues that features a potent solo by Carter and some lyrically responsive trumpet playing by Pelt. The song is the perfect vehicle for the group to simply strut its ability to swing.

On Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing,” Pelt’s beautifully Chet Baker-like solo floats on Drummond’s steady cymbal-driven beat and Carter’s full bodied, roaming bass lines. Pianist Danny Grissett comps to perfection behind Pelt before taking a gorgeous solo where he elegantly ventures off into his own extrapolation of the melody. It seems that the inclusion of the venerable Carter into the group has elevated the maturity level of all the players on this date, as they each play within the song to great effect.

The Dave Grusin/ Allan Bergman ballad “A Love Like Ours” is perhaps the piece de re.sis.tance of the entire album. This achingly beautiful song features Pelt’s lone voice at his most lyrically emotive, with the band playing behind him in a brilliant display of subtle complimentary playing at its finest. It doesn’t get much better than this.

As if to demarcate a change in approach, Drummond’s solo rolling drums open the second part of this album for almost two minutes before the group gets into the main theme of Pelt’s composition “The Haunting.” Pelt’s trumpet wanders around the core of the melody, often modulating the level of intensity with his horn as the band plays on. Carter is particularly active in his playing, peppering the loose swing provided by Drummond with a variety of accented notes and bends. Grissett plays an equally elusive solo.

The deceptively cadenced “Rhapsody” features a syncopated rhythmic vamp that Drummond and Carter produce in conjunction with the ethereal sounds of Grissett on Fender Rhodes. Pelt uses this throbbing groove to establish a floating, tension-building trumpet solo that escalates the drama in the song. Through a series of increasingly urgent sounds, Pelt creats the illusion of entering into the unknown until the song fades out into oblivion at the coda.

Opening with an unaccompanied solo piano introduction by Grissett that sets the alluring mood of “Akua,” is a slow, sauntering ballad, whose repeating vamp imprints in your brain long after you leave it. The film noir-like theme features Pelt’s poignantly muted trumpet and Grissett’s pensive piano work. Carter’s walking bass meanders with creative two-step in-fills that add to the feel of this sultry song.

The final song of the cd is another Pelt original titled “Desire,” an upbeat, loosely structured romp where the rhythm is turbulently played by Drummond creating a sense of unease. that is punctuated by Carter’s roving bass. Grissett and Pelt are both featured playing on the repeating vamp which is the armature around which they base their improvisational ideas. Grissett ventures off into unpredictable grounds on his solo before returning to the theme. Pelt is equally off to the wilderness with his probing trumpet only occasionally touching on the theme in some remote way before magically resolving back to it before the finale.

With #Jive Culture Jeremy Pelt has achieved that rare plateau where hipness meets maturity in one totally satisfying album.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kamsai Washington brings his message to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse

Kamsai Washington The Epic

On Wednesday May 5, 2016 the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington brought his band to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse for a one-night performance that was highly anticipated. The show featured some of the music from his recently released three-disc album The Epic, which has almost uniformly garnered praise from the critics. The album, a studio album that utilized full string orchestration and a choir to achieve Washington’s grand musical vision, was released digitally and on vinyl on May 5, 2015. It is quite an impressive endeavor for both its scope and execution.

On this night Washington brought his core group of musicians, The Next Step, to the Variety stage. Beside himself on tenor, the band includes vocalist Patrice Quinn, upright bassist Miles Mosely, trombonist Ryan Porter, pianist Cameron Graves, drummer Tony Austin and a second drummer Robert Miller. Washington’s introduced his father the multi-reedist Rickie Washington, midway through show.

Kamsai and his Next Step Band at the Variety Playhouse
The Variety was filled to near capacity when the show started at about 9 pm, with many patrons choosing to stand up close to the stage to get a better glimpse of the band. In some sense the music demands a communal, participatory experience.   

Much has been written about this young man. Some say his breakthrough music- a mix of soul, gospel, funk and spiritual jazz that has caught the attention of a new, younger audience that normally eschews instrumental, improvisational music- points the way toward the future of jazz. That's a tall order and remains to be seen, but I suspect the thirty-five-year-old Washington would eschew such attempts at labeling. He and his core band members all hail from the South Los Angeles area and have been playing together since their teens. Washington’s tenor was an an important voice on the landmark hip hop album, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and he has played with Chaka Khan and studied with composer Gerald Wilson. A child of the hip-hop generation, it was an Art Blakey album that turned the young saxophonist at age eleven, onto jazz music and its multi-faceted aspects that he embraces today.

Washington is a large man with a round, tranquil face that is circumnavigated by his wild, teased out Afro and a bushy full beard. He wears a colorful, full length Dashiki gown that gives him the appearance of floating when he walks. The total look is shamanistic, one of a prophet or spiritual medicine man, and so when he plays there is some unspoken expectation of being present for the deliverance of a message. If that is true, I suspect the message is -move over we have heard you and now this is our time.

Washington’s plays with a powerful intensity that is clearly derivative of John Coltrane’s more searching later period, but with strong ties to the unbridled funk of Maceo Parker.

On this evening the music opened with Washington’s powerful, McCoyTyner inspired, “Change of the Guard,” for my money one of the most memorable pieces on his album. There is a sense of majesty about the front line of Washington’s sax, Porter’s trombone and Quinn’s voice all playing the opening line synchronously as the percussive-heavy rhythm section powers it forward. The music bespeaks of the story, a dream Washington had of guards running the gauntlet trying to overcome the old guardsman ( presumably the keeper of the tradition), failing until one who was truly ready finally overthrows the elder. Is Washington that successful guardsman?

The band gets into a heavy, almost dance-able groove that allows for Washington to wail like a man possessed.  And wail he does, he has mastered the art of building tension to a zenith, his tenor screaming in ever escalating crescendos of expression as his frenetic band drives the rhythmic message home like a runaway pile driver. But where Coltrane's sound was searching Washington's sound is more declarative. Graves piano style is both heavy and florid, filled with crescendo-heavy runs of notes that span the entire keyboard, occasionally attacking his keys like he is hammering on a set of bells.

Kamsai Washington and Ryan Porter

On the funky, propulsive “Re-Run” Washington opens the piece with an unaccompanied saxophone solo using a fluttering technique before getting into a repeating vamp that could have easily opened a James Brown or Grover Washington Jr. song. In his enthusiasm, Washington accelerated the pace to a level that was unsustainable by the whole band and had throttle it back a bit before the band joined in. It was times like this where the band seemed out of sync. Patrice Quinn whisper-like tones sang indistinguishable lyrics before Ryan Porter’s trombone was featured on another rhythmic romp. 

The third song featured vocalist Quinn, who waived her lithe arms over her head like a woman in a trance, as she sang in ethereal tones on “Henrietta Our Hero.” Quinn's voice being oddly a soft juxtaposition to the rest of the band's unrestrained power. Washington also introduced his father Rickie Washington who played flute and soprano saxophone for the rest of the set. The song is apparently about Washington’s grandmother who was by all accounts a strong woman and the music was equally powerful and full of emotions, best expressed through Washington’s explosive tenor solo.

Between songs Washington explained that when the band went into the studio to record his album The Epic, it was a collaborative effort, where the musicians each brought into the studio as many as forty-five compositions. The plan was for each artist to perform on the other’s music for future release under their own individual names.  One of the products of that session was by the bassist Miles Mosley, “Abraham”, which featured Mosley’s wah-pedaled upright bass and a really funky front line that sounded a bit like it was inspired by a Native American war dance.

Washington then let the two drummers, Tony Austin and Robert Miller have at it in a rhythmic explosion, a shedding competition. The two drummer format has always been difficult to pull off flawlessly and entertainingly.There were times when I felt the band went off the rails a bit. The missing link might have been the Bruner Brothers, not present on this particular evening. Both drummer Ronald and bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner were important parts of the music on the album. Consequently the band seemed to veer off on its own tangent at times.

Does Washington represent the shape of things to come as so many seem to think? The music does have  a relentless drive, making it irresistible to move your feet and shake your body, like the music of James Brown or P funk.  As some have written it clearly hearkens back to the spiritual jazz of the late sixties where people like Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Albert Ayler once tried to bring us to the transcendental. It even has some roots in the cosmic sounds of Lonnie Liston Smith and the futuristic explorations of Sun Ra's Arkestra. Certainly, elements of gospel, religious celebratory and revival music are also present. 

What I miss the most from this music is the lack of a retainable melody. For all the passion, soul, funk and spirituality that this music clearly represents it leaves me a little hungry, un-satiated.  With the exception of the “Change of the Guard,” it mostly lacks something lastingly melodic that I can take away with me. Something that I can retain beyond the limits of the immediate listen or the excitement of the visceral performance.

Nevertheless, the audience was enraptured and if the majority of critics are right, and the crowds seem to say they are, Washington has tapped into something, something that transcends what much of music is saying today and revives a sound that we have not heard in a long time in its own unique way.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Joe Gransden's Big Band Lights Up Atlanta's Cafe 290 as Gransden receives Jazz Journalist Association's Jazz Heroes Award

For the last seven years the Atlanta based trumpeter& vocalist Joe Gransden has brought his style of big band music to the crowded stage of owner John Scatena’s jazz club, Café 290 in Sandy Springs, Georgia. It has become one of those venerated rituals that those in the know can’t get enough of; a full seventeen-piece big band hearkening back to the days of Artie Shaw, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington playing great music.

Joe Gransden leading his big band at Cafe 290
There is nothing quite like the sound of a well-tuned big band, a sound created by multiple musicians that play with a beautiful precision through musical passages, like a school of fish moving instinctively in unison through the ocean.  A big band offers a unified sound that comes from the deft arrangement of so many instruments all playing in precision concert. The band that Joe has assembled is a testament to his vision and fortitude; a commitment he and his musicians have made to persevere with this project over the last seven years. One is reminded of the revered Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, which eventually morphed into the  Village Vanguard Orchestra. That band  has played that famous jazz haunt weekly since it first started back in 1972! Through Joe and his fellow musicians, these bi-monthly performances at Café 290 have become a source of pride for the Atlanta jazz community, offering an exciting and reliably entertaining evening of music for all who love the big band genre.

The musicians are some of the best from the southeastern United States and many have nationwide credentials. They are led by Joe Gransden on trumpet and vocals, with most of the arrangements by lead trombonist Wes Funderburk. The other musicians include Mace Hibbard on lead alto saxophone, Brian Hogans on alto sax, John Sandfort on tenor sax, Mike Walton on tenor sax, Don Erdman on baritone saxophone and clarinet, Chip Crotts lead trumpet, Rob Opitz trumpet, Clark Hunt trumpet, Melvin Jones trumpet, Tom Gibson trombone, Kevin Hyde trombone, Sam LoBue Bass trombone, Geoff Haydon on electric piano, Neal Starkey on bass and Justin Chaserek on drums. Together these guys make swinging, beautiful music.

This past Monday evening was my maiden voyage to Café 290 to catch this Atlanta phenomenon first hand. We arrived early and got to see the band warm-up. The amazing thing about big bands these days is that they do not get a chance to practice together on a regular basis. With the economics of the music business being what it is, there is little money for the rental of a practice space let alone being able to compensate the musicians fairly for their time. So the warm-up session before the set was the perfect time to do a sound check, work out possible song selections for the evening and tweak sectional requirements and solo spots based on their pre-worked out book.Despite these handicaps, these guys are all professional, can sight read quickly and are accomplished session players, so when the band hit the stage for the opening song, Oliver Nelson’s “Miss Fine,” they were up to speed in no time, running as smoothly as a Swiss movement, and featuring an especially combustible trumpet solo by Melvin Jones.

The affable Gransden made his entrance after the first tune and introduced the sultry “Speak Low,” playing the melody on his trumpet in front of the big band. The band purred behind on the spirited Eugene Throne arrangement, with Gransden taking the high register lead solo on trumpet and John Sandfort taking a spirited tenor solo on this old Sinatra standby.  

The audience was transfixed with the powerful swing of this well-oiled machine as they dialed it down a bit into the slower tempo Sinatra/Count Basie arrangement of” More.”  Joe’s voice has a silky smoothness to it and his stage manner is loose and confident. In many ways he takes his vocal style from the great crooners that fronted the big bands of yesteryear like Sinatra and Tormé.

With the crowd primed for music that could be sung to, Gransden took to another Sinatra tune singing “Get Me to The Church on Time” as the band roared behind him. A quick scan of the crowd and you could see several patrons mimicking the words.

The next song, newly arranged by alto saxophonist Brain Hogans, was the Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” and was Frank Sinatra’s first hit he recorded with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. The lush arrangement swelled languorously as it featured Gransden’s trumpet at the lead. Joe’s playing was reminiscent of trumpeter Chet Baker’s 1959 version in both style and lyrical beauty.

Gransden is always the consummate showman and after miscalling his next chart he related how nice it would be to lose the bulky book of arrangements that he carries around. He told of how the band would soon be able to read their charts on individual I-pads with foot actuated page turning capabilities, a vast improvement.  After a short technical disruption due to microphone difficulties, the band roared into Wes Funderburk’s arrangement of “Chicago Blues”, the perfect vehicle for soloist to blow on. And blow they did with Joe singing the opening lyrics and a soon to follow rousing tenor solo by Mike Walton, a bellowing trombone solo by Kevin Hyde and a solo spot featuring the unified saxophone section before Joe returned to the refrain.

Gransden introduced a song from trumpeter Maynard Ferguson titled “Fox Hunt,” which featured a two trumpet duel between he and Melvin Jones. The two trumpets stating the line as the big band pulsed behind them. True to the Ferguson style, the trumpet licks from Jones were stratospheric. When Gransden took his solo his playing was equally as fiery. The two alternated on the high register of their horns running off lines of notes at break neck speed, eventually ending this jazz duel in flurry of high energy with piercing punctuation.

The band lowered the intensity of the proceedings by introducing a slow ballad “The Nearness of You,”  on an arrangement by Atlanta’s own Jim Basile. Gransden’s voice rendering the song with great tenderness, before he picked up his trumpet and showed what a great balladeer he can be. His tone is warm and honeyed and he often phrases with Baker-like sensitivity.  Another moving tenor solo by John Sandfort capped off this beauty.

Joe Gransden receiving JJA Jazz Heroes Award from Scott Fugate and Ralph A. Miriello

At this point in the show, members of the Jazz JournalistAssociation, Scott Fugate, aka the Jazz Evangelist, and myself had the honor to present Joe with one of this year’s JJA Jazz Heroes award. The award is given to individuals who, in the opinion of the board and members of the JJA, best represent advocacy for the proliferation and appreciation of jazz music in their respective local areas. Joe Gransden was chosen to receive this award for his tireless efforts to promote, educate and foster jazz throughout the Atlanta area. The self-deprecating Gransden accepted the award and the audience warmly applauded him for this well-deserved honor.

The band continued the performance with an impromptu saxophone duel by alto saxophonists Brian Hogans and Mace Hibbard; each man taking the other to new heights of improvisational adventures, as the rhythm section of Haydon, Starkey and Chesarek kept the groove.

After the band did a second-line birthday tribute, New Orleans’s style, to a member in the audience whose birthday some people were celebrating at the club that night, Gransden and company went into a tribute to Glenn Campbell, the Jimmy Webb song “Wichita Lineman” featuring a bass trombone solo by Sam LoBue and some nice interplay between Gransden’s trumpet and Hibbard’s alto. This was followed by a rousing version of the shout-out Glenn Miller Band ‘s “Pennsylvania 6 Five Thousand” complete with Joe’s hand-muted trumpet solo. The set ended with a Dizzy Gillespie burner, the furious “Things to Come” where Joe’s fluttering trumpet solo took flight in true Gillespie-like fashion, pianist Haydon gave a remarkable solo on his electric piano and Mike Walton screamed on his tenor.

Coming from the New York area only a little over a year ago, I was mistakenly concerned that the jazz scene in the South might be somewhat lacking. While New York is still the epicenter of jazz, musicians like Joe Gransden and the artists in his big band, as well as jazz club owner’s like café 290’s John Scatena, make it clear that jazz is alive and well in the Atlanta area.  

This band should not be missed by anyone who loves big band music. You can catch them every 1st and 3rd Monday night at Café 290. The band is making a special trip to appear at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York on Monday July 11, 2016. They have three  album titled It’s a Beautiful Thing, Song’s of Sinatra & Friends and I’ll Be Coming Home for Christmas  that can be purchased on I Tunes here.